When it comes to Iced Earth I've long been a big Matt Barlow guy, so if I've found the last few albums to be a bit "same old, same old" – which is not the same thing as the band embarrassing themselves, but still… – it would be all too easy to unfairly lump the blame at the feet of current singer (and ex-Into Eternity mouthpiece) Stu Block. That would be belying the fact that Iced Earth material has always been composed predominately by group mastermind (and the band's only real mainstay) Jon Schaffer. Sure, Block did manage to score a healthy number of co-writes on 2014's Plagues of Babylon, but I actually considered that a modest improvement on 2012's fairly humdrum Dystopia.
Lots of bands have had rotating lineups over the years, but take one look at the below chart lifted from Wikipedia and tell me it doesn't look like a deep sea distress call rendered in Morse Code:
This is not necessarily a bad thing when you have a primary talent capable of consistently realizing their own vision with the assistance of hired hands, and that's definitely the case with Iced Earth. It's just that the last few years have found this unit spinning their wheels a bit; again, no Supercollider level whiffs on their record, but the past few records going all the way back to the late Barlow era have been notably short on the kind of instant classics we came to expect out of long-player gems like Something Wicked This Way Comes and the "early stuff" re-recordings of Days of Purgatory, as fine a pound-for-pound anthology as any band can boast in their catalog.
Speaking of Something Wicked, the narrative concept introduced on the final three tracks of that album have been an omnipresent fallback in Iced Earth's lyrical repertoire in the two decades since (notable exception: the excellent Civil War-themed Glorious Burden). It would seem, then, that at some point the narrative conceit started taking priority over uniquely crafted, standalone songs that sound like a limitless stream of unassailable hits when put on shuffle mode or integrated into a concert setlist. A subjective conclusion, to be sure, but how many of us can honestly say that Crucible of Man is our all time favorite Iced Earth album?
So that brings us to Incorruptible, the band's first album since 2004 to jettison the Something Wicked storyline altogether in favor of individually themed songs free of any need for a musical through-line to tie them all together. Without those constraints, Incorruptible proves to be a solid improvement if not quite a full rebound.
For one thing, much like the band's work over the last decade or so there is still more of an emphasis on complex instrumental parts than vocal melody, and it's the latter that I found so compelling about the older Barlow material; couple that with plenty of legit guitar-riffic shredding and I just found that material that much more multi-faceted. Which is not to say that Incorruptible is monochromatic or even completely devoid of melody. "Brothers" is a pretty heartfelt tune about personal connections, with a cathartic vocal delivery to match, and single "Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)" is a 9.5-minute epic that every bit matches the twin ideals of melody and instrumental craftsmanship that the old Iced Earth capitalized on so well.
But man, it's funny: fans defend their favorite bands all the time under the excuse that "you can't expect them to keep writing ____ pt. 2 over and over again", but Iced Earth's biggest albatross is that they actually have kept writing Something Wicked Redux again and again, so one can't help but take solace in the fact that that mold has been seemingly shattered for good. I only wish I found some of the more melodic stuff ("Raven Wing", "The Veil") just that much catchier, and the hard edged material ("Seven Headed Whore", "Black Flag") a bit darker in tone and execution. As it is, there is a lot of strong material on Incorruptible that is largely smeared together with a one-size-fits-all, midpaced brush that stifles emotion more often than it encourages it. There's also a weird thing going on with "The Veil" where the catchiest part of the song – the chorus – sounds jarringly like it was lifted from an old Loverboy track. In the end, I like where the band is currently headed, but this particular stopover seems less like a destination than a refueling station.